An Old Beerfest Stays Fresh

The oldest beerfest in Connecticut hardly advertises. Beyond a bare-bones Facebook page, the semiannual event, hosted by the Knights of Columbus Lodge in Hamden, attracts attendance largely through reputation and word of mouth.

IMG_1294As in recent years, the line for tickets stretched out the door on April 17. And the tasting selection — 26 breweries, 93 total beers — was again an impressive mix of microbreweries up-and-coming or well-established, mostly from Connecticut, whose booths lined the sides of the banquet hall.

The Knights of Columbus have hosted beerfests each spring and October since 1998. A relative rookie, I’ve been coming for three years. The price of admission ($25) included a buffet from local restaurants, and a free raffle with beer swag.

The event’s organizer on the brewery side is Jeff Browning, an industry veteran who’s long been at the heart of the Connecticut craft beer scene. He has seen firsthand the evolution of craft beer from niche hobby to mainstream passion.

“At the beginning, this event was literally just a bunch of old guys getting together and saying, ‘Hey, you want to try this beer I’ve been working on?’” says Browning, head brewer at the brewery/restaurant/nightclub BAR in New Haven, CT. “Now people come here wanting to know, ‘Where are the single-hop beers? Where are the quadruple beers?’”IMG_1266

To support this growing consumer interest, Browning invites new breweries to sample at the Knights of Columbus beerfest. These brewers will show up with barely labeled growlers of their product. This is how I first tried Black Hog and Firefly Hollow years ago. Both have since become staples in Connecticut craft beer.

I began my tasting with Firefly. Co-owner Rich Loomis poured me the Dire Chinchilla, an imperial pale ale that tasted nicely of strawberry shortcake. Interestingly, Loomis is not sure why.

“The Palisade Hops in this do not normally present as strawberry,” Loomis says. “We wish we knew why they were, but we’re just going to keep brewing it.”

Next I tried the Afflatus Copper Ale: a smooth, crisp, malty, well-balanced brown ale. As I discussed this brew with my friend and fellow beer nut Garrett, Loomis figured us the appropriate drinkers on which to experiment. From out of a cooler behind his booth he produced an unmarked, corked bomber.

Like many breweries, Firefly is expanding into barrel aging. Loomis poured us an intentionally light, early batch of his new wheat beer, aged six months in whiskey barrels. It had a slight, enjoyable sour kick. I look forward to the stronger, final version.

IMG_1280Black Hog was a few booths over. Their taps included Granola Nut Brown — a crisp brown ale, perfectly balanced between malty and hoppy — and SWAG. An acronym for Summer Wheat Ale with Grapefruit, this brew was created with grapefruit and sage peel. The fruity beer was pleasantly aromatic, and not too sweet.

From there I sampled numerous other breweries, including OvershoresTroegsRelicOlde BurnsideDuvig and City Steam. Fruit flavors remained a common theme. Berkshire Brewing Company brought their Raspberry Strong Ale, which was wonderfully fruity, and surprisingly smooth for its 9% ABV.

My friends Robin and Sam, fans of Two Roads, informed me that the brewery’s latest batch of Road Jam raspberry wheat ale was less tart this year, and brought out the beer’s lemon grass. Nuanced observations like this suggest that there are more favorable years ahead for Connecticut craft beer and the Knights of Columbus beerfest.

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